Days of the Beast

A bestseller in Europe that's finally becoming available to an English-speaking audience, Hungarian Enki Bilal's The Beast Trilogy (Humanoids/DC Comics, $14.95) is not for those who like their books linear or simple. Set approximately 25 years in the future, the series takes place in a world where catastrophic nuclear accidents occurred in 2003 and 2004 in Pakistan and Russia. Those disasters brought about the formation of a super-terrorist organization known as the Obscurantis Order: Fundamentalists from "the three principal monotheistic sectors" -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- joined forces when they agreed that they worshipped the same God and shared the same goals of purifying art, culture and science. The Obscurantis Order went on to become the world's most fearsome terrorist organization; in response, many nations, including America, became theocracies. However, recent mysterious discoveries by the Hubble 4 Telescope have shaken up not only the Order but also the religious leaders of the rest of the world.

In the first two chapters, "The Dormant Beast" and "December 32nd," which have been combined into one schizophrenic, raucous volume for U.S. release, three principal characters emerge: Leyla, a scientist working with the Hubble 4; Amir, a drone for an outfit that might or might not be the Obscurantis Order; and Nike, a memory specialist who can remember his first days on Earth. The three first met in a Serbian orphanage, where Nike, the oldest by a few days, swore to protect them. Now, in their hour of need, he's off to find them. The plot swirls around, with mind-controlling nanotechnology disguised as flies, miniature animals, androids that can't tell if they're real or synthetic, and a psychopathic artist named Warhole whose medium is blood and death.

It's a complex book, but ultimately very rewarding and the prose and artwork are so appealing, it won't feel like a chore. Bilal does the illustrating as well as the writing, and his pencil work, which doesn't try to hide the lines, adds a grittiness that suits the story. Without the final volume, it's difficult to say what The Beast Trilogy adds up to; if the third installment doesn't provide some answers, it could be disastrous. But for now, be optimistic.

Girl for Sale

With one large image on each page and the text running alongside, Rent Girl, by Michelle Tea with illustrations by Laurenn McCubbin (Last Gasp, $24.95), looks like a children's book, but this is an adults-only story. Much of Tea's previous work (The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruptions of One Girl in America, Valencia) delivers an absorbing autobiographical account of its author's life on the streets. Continuing in that vein, Rent Girl describes Tea's work in a Boston bordello with her girlfriend, and her later move to San Francisco.

With its cozy, casual prose, Rent Girl reads as if Tea were right in front of you, telling you her life story over a cup of coffee. It comes as a relief that she does not try to psychoanalyze herself or deliver a weepy memoir about a painful childhood full of neglect and abuse. Tea admits there was some "sexual inappropriateness" from a family member toward her as a child, but she quickly moves on from the subject, and she doesn't try to use it as an excuse for her choice of profession. "I wanted to try things, everything, especially things that were illegal and have a faint whiff of glamour." The glamour quickly wears off, but the money is still very good.

A gifted writer, Tea keeps the prose bright despite her gritty topic. Laurenn McCubbin's provocative, confrontational drawings -- done in vivid hues of black and red, the women often staring out at the reader -- make for a disarming combination with Tea's laid-back writing. Painful at times, silly at others, Rent Girl presents prostitution simply as a paycheck job, one whose crazy coworkers and clients will feel familiar to anyone who's had a day job.

Last Man Standing

In case you haven't heard, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's (and others') wildly popular top-notch Y: The Last Man series takes place in a contemporary world where all male mammals have died off in a mysterious plague -- all, that is, but escape artist and magician Yorick and his monkey, Ampersand. For a year now Yorick has been traveling with Agent 355, sent by a secret government agency to protect the last living man, and Dr. Allison Mann, who's trying to get to her lab in California to further her cloning research and save the species. Yorick only wants to get to California to hop onto a boat to Australia, which is where his girlfriend was last time they spoke. With the nation in shock, however, it's not easy going.

In the series's fourth collection, Y: The Last Man: Safeword (DC Comics/Vertigo, $12.95), the gang has gotten as far as Arizona, only to find the highway blocked by the surviving female members of the Sons of Arizona militia. Believing that the federal government is behind the plague, they have stopped all traffic through their state and caused the starvation of thousands. "We'll continue . . . until America's fever breaks . . . and the infection of government has passed," declares the militia leader, who believes Bush and Cheney are hiding in a bunker just waiting to pounce.

Inventiveness and compassion, up until now one of the series's most attractive features, aren't much in evidence in Safeword. The female militia members never rise above stereotype, and writer Vaughan doesn't give us much motivation for their actions. In previous installments, some of the female characters reacted badly to the chaos around them, but at least we were always allowed to observe their thought processes, which made them seem slightly less unstable. Here, the militia is viewed exclusively from the outside: They're just a bunch of crazy women blindly following the lead of their dead husbands and fathers.

In a bizarre subplot, Yorick also becomes the subject of an odd little intervention designed to curb his death wish and explain his celibacy: He finally admits that the pressure of being humanity's savior is driving him mad. Inexplicably, a woman in leather dominatrix gear leads the intervention. It feels cheap, which is new for this series. Nor do we get much plot advancement or any new revelations about what killed off the males -- or what the future holds. Safeword just feels like filler all around. One hopes that this series quickly recovers from its slump.

Heads Up

Autobiography may be the fastest-growing genre in independent comics. Writers such as James Kochalka and Craig Thompson, however, can get tiresome as they chronicle how sensitive and neglected by women they are. Jeffrey Brown tends to focus on the same topic, but his self-awareness keeps him from becoming a bore. He intersperses books such as Unlikely and Clumsy -- some of the best autobiographical comix around -- with others like Be a Man, in which he pokes fun at his ultra-sensitive persona.

His most recent release, the hilarious Bighead (Top Shelf, $12.95), satirizes superhero comics as well as the autobiographical comix scene. Brown's eponymous superhero fights enemies like Powerbroker, who tears down the rainforests to create a demand for his oxygen stockpiles; Girlhair, an aging hippie whom Bighead defeats by confusing his drug-addled mind with a riddle; and Heartbroke, a man hellbent on destroying the world because his girlfriend left him. Bighead's list of superhero powers includes "Enlarged cranium enables superior deductive reasoning as well as non-linear problem solving," "Deadly steel-toed kicking ability," and "Cape=Can fly." Even though Bighead always saves the day, he is still riddled with self-doubt and can't keep his nemesis from stealing his girlfriend. As he whimpers on the back cover, lips aquiver, "But why don't I feel super?"

Brown keeps the artwork simple; at times it borders on the sloppy. A more polished style would seem better suited for a superhero comic, but Brown makes up for it with his sharp wit. Somehow, with all of the parody and all of the jokes, the book still manages to be earnest. Bighead fights Heartbroke with cliches, yelling "You deserve better!" as he delivers a karate chop. Bighead works because the satire is affectionate: The hero stands in for every insecure comic geek boy, and every villain is just an ordinary person in a mask. *

Jessa Crispin is editor of the literary blog Bookslut.com.